Climate change is grossly unfair. Consider this: Every year, the average American causes 16 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That’s about eight times as much as the average Indian, and almost 50 times as much as the average Kenyan.
And yet, generally speaking, people in India and Kenya are experiencing climate change much more than the average person in the United States. Since 1970, over 2 million people have died in hurricanes, droughts, floods and other climate disasters – and 91% of those deaths happened in developing countries. That disparity is only going to get worse as the planet gets hotter, because those disasters are now happening 4–5 times more often than they were 50 years ago, and causing 7 times as much damage. So, how did we get here, and what can we do to solve the vast injustices of climate change?
Let’s start with a brief history lesson. Global inequality has grown massively over the last 200 years. Today, the world’s richest country, Luxembourg, has an average income of about $118,000, whereas in the poorest country, Burundi, that figure is just $700. That huge gap in income also means big differences in quality of life. In Japan, a child born today can expect to live until the age of 84. But a child born in Lesotho would be lucky to make it past their 50th birthday. At the same time, the world’s richest countries have been mainly responsible for climate change. The United States makes up just 4% of the world’s population, but it’s contributed 20% of global carbon emissions since 1850. There were two major forces behind these inequalities that we see today: colonialism and the Industrial Revolution.
Around 500 years ago, many European countries started to establish colonies in the Americas, eventually building up global empires that also covered large parts of Africa, Asia, Australia and the Pacific by the end of the 18th century. By this point, Europe and the US were also going through the Industrial Revolution, which saw the large-scale adoption of machines and factories, as well as the burning of fossil fuels. Both colonialism and the Industrial Revolution led to rapid economic growth and rising living standards in Europe and its settler colonies like the US, Canada and Australia. But colonialism also hindered development in many other parts of the world, where the colonial powers were mainly interested in extracting natural resources and keeping the wealth to themselves, leaving the native people to linger in poverty. Today, many colonized countries still suffer from deforestation and land degradation that began under colonialism. In the Indian Himalayas, deforestation today can be traced all the way back to the construction of railways by the British in the 19th century.
Likewise, many countries in the Caribbean had their forests cut down to make room for agricultural plantations, which are now extra vulnerable to climate disasters like hurricanes. As global inequality has increased, so too have the injustices that follow. But often, these injustices don’t fall clearly along the lines of nationality, race, gender or social class. Instead, there are usually overlaps between some of these different traits. For example, ethnic minorities and people of color, who are more likely to be working-class, have been much more likely to die of COVID-19, according to studies in the US, the UK and Brazil. That’s why it helps to adopt an approach called intersectionality, which looks at how multiple forms of social identity can combine to shape a person’s experience. An Indigenous, working-class, lesbian woman may experience racism, sexism, classism and homophobia at the same time. People who experience these multiple forms of oppression can be especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In India and Pakistan, young rural women have been the most heavily impacted by drought.
That’s because many of their husbands have migrated to cities in search of work, forcing the women to take over farming duties while also having to raise their families. And this phenomenon doesn’t just affect developing countries. In the US, for example, black mothers are more likely to suffer pregnancy risks from exposure to extreme heat and air pollution, which are due again to issues of wealth and class. But what happens when we ignore these intersecting forms of oppression? In 2019, climate activist group Extinction Rebellion sparked controversy by blockading the London Underground during rush hour. Several members climbed on top of a train in a working-class neighborhood of East London and were violently dragged off by angry commuters.
That particular action was controversial for two reasons: first, the protesters targeted one of the most environmentally friendly forms of transport. On top of that, they also targeted ordinary people who were simply on their way to work. Extinction Rebellion says its strategy is to build mass support for climate action through civil disobedience, but it runs the risk of alienating many of the people it wants to attract. That brings us to a common criticism of the climate movement, which is that, in the Global North, it tends to be very white and middle-class, and not very diverse. That lack of diversity can often lead to blind spots – like the fact that many working-class people depend on public transport. For another example, take plastic straws. They’re single-use, they’re non-recyclable, and all too often, they end up in the ocean, where they get swallowed by fish and other marine animals. In 2018, the US city of Seattle became one of the first to ban them completely.
But plastic straws are also an important tool for people with certain disabilities, because not everyone can pick up a cup. So, before we ban them, it’s important that we provide an alternative for the people who need them. That’s why intersectionality is so crucial. We need a climate movement that includes and incorporates voices from the frontlines of climate change so that we can start to tackle the many intersecting forms of oppression that they face. Climate justice also means confronting some hard truths. The world’s richest countries aren’t just emitting too much carbon – they’re also overconsuming. According to the Global Footprint Network, humanity is consuming about 70% more resources than the Earth can regenerate each year, and the average person in North America consumes about six times as many resources as the average person in Africa.
In other words, if everyone on the planet lived like North Americans, we would need about five planets. Some scholars and activists say rich countries have a moral duty to drastically reduce consumption to allow enough resources for poorer countries to reach a decent standard of living. That process is often referred to as degrowth, and it would mean redesigning the global economy so that people in rich countries can continue to live well while consuming far less. It would also mean building solidarity across the globe and across racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and intergenerational lines, because none of us can solve climate change by ourselves. But reducing consumption isn’t enough, because what would happen if people in rich countries suddenly stopped spending money? Well… that’s exactly what happened during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and both poverty and unemployment skyrocketed around the world. So, degrowth needs to be done fairly, and that means protecting people who could lose their livelihoods if we started to live greener. For instance, we need to retrain coal miners and oil workers to find jobs in renewable energy.
So, what’s your role in all of this? If you’re doing well for yourself and you’d like to make a difference, there are always ways to donate time or money to support grassroots climate change projects. Check the link in the description for a list of campaigns to consider supporting. And if you live in a community that’s already suffering from the effects of climate change, it’s never too late to start building resilience by getting involved in a climate adaptation project. Here at the Global Landscapes Forum, we’ve recently launched the GLFx initiative to drive local action towards more sustainable landscapes, whether that means planting trees, protecting coral reefs, or creating opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. If that sounds like your thing, visit the GLFx website through the link in the description to learn more. So, that’s it for today’s episode of Landscape TV, but before you go, we want to hear your ideas. What does climate justice mean to you? Let us know in the comments. And if you enjoyed this video, don’t forget to smash that like button and subscribe to be the first to know when our next episode comes out.
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